Monday, December 22, 2014

Phantom Tollbooth part I : Pre-Emptive Apology to Norton Juster

 (The original story by Norton Juster was a favorite when I read it as a kid. The Charles Dickens quote was relevant to the meaning of the story and also to the modern condition this adaptation was examining. The mismatch I found reinforced the unpredictable, off the wall nature of the story while setting the tone for other literary reference.)

     While studying at Gnomon I had an opportunity to build a film pitch for Phantom Tollbooth. A course called Visual Structure, taught by the awesome Andrea Adams, allowed some freedom to establish my own guidelines. I decided to use the course to build out an Art Direction and Pipeline that I could effectively use for the content at hand but also carry over into future projects. The course was a thorough breakdown of narrative structure and meaningful visual design in film.

    The goal was to imagine a film that could fall into the "middle" budget category. The target of an 10-13 year old audience, with the idea of including parents, allows for a fair amount of freedom over simpler films aimed at young children or trope ridden films chasing the full blown teenage, Hunger Games crowd (enough with the love triangles!). It is also an age that a story may have more impact as it is right before the distractions of the average teenage life come into play. I was inspired by great films like Iron Giant, Labyrinth, Where the Wild Things Are and Big Fish.

      Phantom Tollbooth is a story that could be properly adapted and updated for live action without betraying the source material. Having read and loved the book as a child, I felt confident in respectfully interpreting a story that stays true to the source material. That said, this may very well piss off Norton Juster. If this had been a professional project I would do everything I could to get the involvement and support of the original creator.

(Phantom Tollbooth Synopsis for context -

(It was exciting to approach color scripting in a layered manner. Whether or not this would make a difference in the end is uncertain. I would have to see this followed through to determine the value. It could be that this is simply spinning the wheels more than necessary. A simpler color scripting may achieve all that is needed just the same.)

     The Hero's journey is a traditional and widely used structure. I wanted to rethink the idea of that journey and introduce the philosophy behind the journey. This brought about Plato's Journey, a scripting that mashed together the Hero's Journey and a cliff note version of Plato's Cave (

     The early colors are inspired by the pallet of a cave lit by dim lights casting shadows on the wall. So I wrapped Milo and the world in warm but subdued pallet inspired by fire, ember, wood and cave walls. The movement to a more diverse and cooler pallet represents the leaving of the cave and opening up of cloudy skies and vibrant nature.

     The relationship between Milo and the world also needed to be distinct. This was done by establishing a similar but ultimately independent color script for the lead character Milo. One that reacts and moves with the world but follows its own course of transformation. Although the world moves about chaotically, Milo's progress is steadier than expected when he reflects at the end of the journey.
(Expanding on the usual art direction approach, I gathered reference for specific pallets. Embedded in the reference is additional style, tone and visual reference.)

     While collecting warm pallet references I wanted to keep them tight so the latter stages of the color script would pop with a wider range, more contrast and saturation. At the same time I was wary of the direction feeling to bland or static. In order to avoid this, I researched great artist who wield subdued pallets while maintaining a sense of energy. In some cases, pulling frames from films and editing them with saturation shifts in Photoshop helped narrow down pallets.

(Before working on character concepts, gathering visual character reference but also voice reference is essential. So although the look of the people may play a role, their voice and personality serve as another form of influence. This alongside art direction notes serve a a compass..)

      Great character visuals start with great personality story and voice. It helps to see them before you see them. Even if the visual development strays from the original reference it helps set a tone and emotion. The aim was to really establish characters that fill the screen and stir distinct feelings in an audience. Doing so while reaching for some unexpected inspiration helped build enthusiasm.

(When re-reading Phantom Tollbooth I understood Milo to be depressed, something that may have not been recognized or spoken about at the time of the original release. A modern interpretation can develop these ideas without changing the story or character. This was done by referencing both stories I have read or have known personally.)

      The visuals would work well if they could deliver the original message but also reward the application of that message (importance of critical thought) to the design. The notes in the image detail some of the ideas behind the design. Below are additional bullet points.

- Milo's warm pallet wraps around him and connect him to Plato's cave. The stripes represent the feeling of being bound by his original mind-state. The logo that looks like an upside down exclamation point is a hint at a key hole, further pushing the idea of being mentally and emotionally locked up.

- The heavy bag represents traditional education. Something that needed to be left behind for the journey into searching out ones own education. The bag's strap lock is a seat belt buckle in order to visualize the safe and necessary side of structured learning. The damage and roughed up look is also meant to express the risks and dangers of unstructured education if done with out persistent critical thought.

- The rendering was inspired by J.C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell. The aim was to create a new American nostalgia that properly represents the diversity of American culture; as some of the old paintings represent a specific type of American life.

- Milo slowly looses apparel representative of confinement. The deconstruction of his military school uniform. The creation of his own super hero suit and logo with his painted hand. The colors are reference to a sequence in the story where the orchestra plays the color into the world every morning. I imagined the color would be like wet paint before settling into the world.

- The extension of Milo's name (giving him an initial and last name) was inspired by the civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph. There is value to creating new images and also referencing real life people who are inspiring without the use of religious undertones. It delivers a more universal message.

     Another pass will help push a detailed, painterly and expressive direction while being assisted with photo call outs to define materials. The last two iterations suffer from some slightly wonky proportions that need to be tweaked. The poses can also be adjusted for more weight and expression. The notes could due with a larger font and more concise wording.

(Scuffs and a mocking sign stuck to his back hint at being bullied at school. The book sized package expands into the tollbooth. The changing package pallet is meant to foreshadow Milo's transformation. With more time, showing the vibrantly colored tollbooth concept along side the different package stages would make for a stronger concept sheet.)

     The call out sheet needs a bit more work. The front view could deliver more information rather than just repeat the view from the first sheet. The package concepts would have a stronger initial read if they were included in the scale line up. Right now with out the text the size in comparison to Milo is a little uncertain. Both sheets in general could do with a bump in contrast and form definition. Going forward I have quite a bit of feedback from some great artists that will help improve the concepts on every level.

     When it comes to developing human and costume concepts, it is important to capture the magic of classic artists. There is a warmth and character in the proportions of Rockwell's work that really sells the personality. A modern artist who nails this is Moby Francke. I admire his ability to produce painterly expressive strokes while balancing the high resolution areas that masterfully define material and form. I have a long way to go before catching up to his work, but thanks to Andrea Adam's insight, the concepts really pushed me into new territory and I feel good about the direction it is headed.

    That is it for this post, trying to make these a bit shorter. There are a lot of better things to be pointing your eyes holes at; like videos of kangaroos fighting or Danny Glover's sweaty forehead.

Below are the artists referenced above:

Moby Francke -
JC Lynedecker (Google Him!)
Norman Rockwell (Google Him!)

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